May 29, 2023


Digital Art Community

Chiefly Objects – Tabua


The presentation whale tooth, or tabua, is the most important Fijian valuable, made from a sperm whale tooth that has been oiled, smoked, polished, and fitted with a coconut-husk fiber cord. A tabua is presented as a gift on important occasions, like weddings and funerals, or as an apology for a misdeed. It is also used to welcome honored guests, pledge allegiance, request assistance, and express thanks. On all these occasions, the donors and recipients hold the tabua in their hands and make formal speeches to acknowledge the participants and explain the purpose of the offering.

Fijians did not hunt whales; they obtained teeth from sperm whales stranded on local reefs and beaches. Increasing numbers of teeth were obtained in the early nineteenth century from European traders, who exchanged them for sandalwood and bêche-de-mer (sea cucumbers) destined for trade with China. For Fijians, whale teeth were symbolically associated with the cosmological power of the sea and of chiefs. In addition to being used as valuable gifts, teeth were transformed into chiefly adornments such as breastplates and necklaces; segments of ivory were also inlaid in objects for use by chiefs, such as clubs and headrests. The finest examples incorporating sperm whale teeth were acquired and used as gifts by high-status chiefs.